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Rightly, then, are those called children who know Him who is God alone as their Father, who are simple, and infants, and guileless, who are lovers of the horns of the unicorns.

Clement of Alexandria

“Are unicorns real?” my daughter Erin asks me.

“No girl. Unicorns are make-believe.”

“Yeah, I know, just like dinosaurs.”

“No, dinosaurs are real. They just don’t exist anymore. They lived a long time ago.”

“Did unicorns live a long time ago?

“No, girl. Unicorns are make-believe.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve had this conversation with her. But she’s 4 years-old, and unicorns are an important part of her life. It makes sense that she’d want to double-check every now and then.

Now, for those wondering about what Clement was talking about, it is worth noting that there was a time in history when the existence of unicorns had not yet been settled. (Also true of dragons, for that matter.) Maybe the existence of rhinos, which one could describe as fat horses with a horn on their nose, found its way to Alexandria via the telephone game. Who knows? The point is, in his defense, real unicorns may have been within the realm of the possible.

However, he might actually be making an allusion to the Bible, which, of course, talks about unicorns.

If that’s news to you, it’s because most modern translations do not use “unicorn.” But the ancient Greek and Latin translations did. And the King James Version, following them, mentions unicorns nine times.

Since Clement specifically mentions the horn of the unicorns, that narrows the possible allusion to three verses:

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The Loveliness of the Cross

Renunciation is nothing else than a manifestation of the cross and of dying…. Consider, then, what the cross implies, within whose mystery it behooves you henceforth to proceed in this world, since you no longer live, but he lives in you who was crucified for you…. But you might say: How can a person constantly carry a cross, and how can someone be crucified while he is still alive? …

Our cross is the fear of the Lord. Just as someone who has been crucified, then, no longer has the ability to move or to turn his limbs in any direction by an act of his mind, neither must we exercise our desires and yearnings in accordance with what is easy for us and gives us pleasure at the moment but in accordance with the law of the Lord and where it constrains us.

~ St. John Cassian, Institutes

Tonight in the Orthodox Church, we commemorate Great Friday: the crucifixion of our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ.

There are cosmic dimensions to this. St. Paul tells us “in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ … the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14). So also, says St. John, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

This cosmic and mystical aspect of the cross historically occurs more frequently in the Byzantine Tradition.

We can also speak of the crucifixion as fulfillment of the sacrifices of old:

And every priest stands ministering daily and offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But this Man [Jesus], after He had offered one sacrifice for sins forever, sat down at the right hand of God, from that time waiting till His enemies are made His footstool. (Hebrews 10:11-13)

This tends to be the more common Western emphasis: Christ offers himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, so that partaking of his Body and Blood we may live anew in his victory.

There is at least one more emphasis, and perhaps, from my limited reading, this is more prevalent in the Russian Tradition, understood in the historical sense (rather than present-day nations and politics). This emphasis, according to G. P. Fedotov, can be called the “kenotic” or self-emptying aspect of the Cross.

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The Joy of Thy Salvation

Lesson after the Presanctified Liturgy

Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church

Grand Rapids, Michigan

March 30, 2022


A story from the desert Fathers provides a fitting image for our topic tonight:

The monks praised a brother to Abba Antony. But Antony went to him and tested whether he could endure abuse. And when he perceived that he could not bear it, he said: “You are like a house with a highly decorated facade, where burglars have stolen all the furniture out of the back door.”

In chapters 14 through 18 of Way of the Ascetics, Tito Colliander focuses on the topics of humility, watchfulness, resolution, and prayer. Without humility, we cannot be watchful. Without watchfulness or “vigilance,” we cannot be resolute. Without resolution—“the will to resist” temptation—we cannot truly pray. Then, no matter how holy we may seem to our brothers and sisters, their praise only amounts to window dressing, while inside the houses of our hearts, nothing of value remains. We have allowed burglars—our temptations—to steal away our virtue while we weren’t looking, too self-absorbed to notice.

Colliander connects these four elements in the second paragraph of chapter 14:

Humility is a prerequisite, for the proud man is once and for all shut out. Vigilance is necessary in order immediately to recognize the enemies and to keep the heart free from vice. The will to resist must be established at the very instant the enemy is recognized. But since without me ye can do nothing (John 15:5), prayer is the basis on which the whole battle depends.

My intention in this talk tonight is to augment Colliander’s discussion of these four elements by fleshing out some of the Fathers’ teachings that he sometimes leaves implicit in these chapters. With greater nuance, then, I hope we’ll be able to have a deeper discussion of these essential spiritual tools as they relate to our own lives.

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Why Praise God?

Great are you, O Lord, and strongly to be praised: Great is your power, and your wisdom cannot be quantified. And man wants to praise you, though a tiny portion of your creation, and man is surrounded by his mortality, the witness to his sin, the witness that you resist the proud — yet man wants to praise you, though a tiny portion of your creation. You rouse us to delight in your praise; for you made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.

~ St. Augustine of Hippo, Confessions

Why praise God? The Scriptures and hymns of the Church are full of praises of God. Yet the Church also affirms, to quote St. Athanasius, “God … stands in need of nothing, but is self-sufficient and self-contained, and … in Him all things have their being, and … He ministers to all rather than they to Him….”

So if God needs nothing, is self-sufficient, and ministers to us rather than we to him … why praise him? If he doesn’t need anything, he doesn’t need our praises. If he’s all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing, certainly he knows how great he is. So why praise him?

Does God have a fragile ego, in need of constant affirmation? No. Is he incomplete or imperfect without us? No. What good is praise to God?

The answer: It sort of isn’t. We praise God not because God needs our praise but because we need to praise him. God is Goodness, Truth, and Beauty. According to St. Severinus Boethius, “God is absolute happiness.” Praising God reorients our perspective to value most what matters most. It is metanoia, a “changing of the mind,” i.e., repentance.

Just saying words of praise, however, isn’t enough. According to Metropolitan St. Philaret of Moscow, prayer is “[t]he lifting up of man’s mind and heart to God, manifested by devout words.” It isn’t just our words, like some magical incantation, but “man’s mind and heart.” As St. Augustine points out, that seems a lot harder.

This would seem to make our desire to praise God a fool’s errand. Yet the secret grace to it all comes precisely when we realize this. We can only, with great struggle, turn to God and offer imperfect, inadequate, insufficient, and superfluous praise. Yet it is in the very act of truly doing so, truly reorienting our minds and hearts and seeing ourselves for what we really are compared to God, that he is there, at once terrifying, calming, cleansing, uplifting, and flooding our hearts with the very purity, joy, and rest for which we so dearly long.

God is great, but we are minuscule compared to him and literally nothing without him. Furthermore, we are mortal; he is Life itself. We are sinful; he is Goodness. We are dishonest; he is Truth. We envy and hate each other; he “is Love” (1 John 4:8).

“Come to me,” beckons Jesus, “all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).

That is a call that must be answered every day. Lord, have mercy, that I would do so more often.

Sometimes it seems easier to get caught up in the tragedy and evil of a world under the shadow of death and sin, but that broad road is restless. It only seems easy, but it always ends up harder.

The narrow road, the path away from emptiness toward the fullness of life and meaning — that road always seems harder, harder to see, harder to accept, harder to travel. And yet, whenever we manage, however imperfectly, to do so, we find the terrible, transcendent God before us in Jesus Christ, “gentle and lowly in heart.” We find an easy burden, “rest for [our] souls.”

And that is why we praise him.

The Problem of Goodness

It is plain, then, that the only object sought for in all these ways is happiness. For that which each seeks in preference to all else, that is in his judgment the supreme good. And we have defined the supreme good to be happiness. Therefore, that state which each wishes in preference to all others is in his judgment happy.

~ St. Severinus Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, 3.2

Boethius suffered martyrdom in the sixth century. Once a Roman senator and philosopher of some renown, his political rivals—by his account, at least—accused him of a crime he didn’t commit: conspiracy to overthrow the king. Boethius was a Catholic, in the ancient sense of that term meaning “Orthodox,” but Rome had been conquered in the fifth century by the Visigoths (basically ancient, “high church” Jehovah’s Witnesses, if that makes any sense). While he had been able to maintain his place in society as an aristocrat, despite being a Catholic, over time he made the wrong enemies. He wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting execution.

One might expect Boethius to have struggled with what is called the “problem of evil” today. That is, if God is so good and powerful, how come the innocent suffer? Injustice certainly troubled Boethius; he experienced it firsthand. But throughout the work he expresses no doubt in the goodness of God. Instead, he questions the worth of his education. His problem is basically: “If the innocent suffer, what good is my degree?” That actually strikes me as a far more contemporary question.

In the ancient world, philosophy was the summit of higher education. Boethius, like Cicero before him, learned philosophy and decided to become a statesman to serve the common good. In some ways, Boethius marks the beginning of the scholastic era that so strongly formed the methodology of medieval academia. He may have been the first to articulate and follow a strict distinction between philosophy and theology. Sometimes philosophy may touch on theological topics, but to put it simply philosophy constitutes reasoned reflection on everyday reality for the sake of the good life, whereas theology is reasoned reflection on divine revelation.

The Consolation of Philosophy is a philosophical work. Boethius talks about God, and I plan to reflect here on some of what he says, but there are more references to ancient myth than the Bible or Church Tradition. So what is he trying to accomplish?

Boethius wants the work to be an apology, a defense, for philosophy. The work is a philosophical dialogue, in fact, between Boethius and Lady Philosophy—philosophy personified. She comes to console him in his suffering and assure him that, despite the manifest injustice he faces, his studies have not been in vain.

In what amounts to a brilliant summary of the patristic synthesis of ancient Greek and Biblical ethics, Lady Philosophy walks Boethius through all the reasons why riches, fame, and power—the things people so often mistake for happiness—do not of themselves satisfy us. Rather, she reminds him that “the essence of absolute good and of happiness is one and the same.” Virtue is the only true good and the source of all joy. Vice is the only true evil. It is possible for the wicked to have the pleasures of riches, fame, and power, but it is not possible for them to be happy. By contrast, even those unjustly awaiting their execution may be happy, despite their suffering, if they only have virtue.

But what is this goodness? What is this happiness? Lady Philosophy tells him plainly, “God is absolute happiness.” We might think of the Scripture, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things”—the things you worry over every day—“shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Or this one: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

The Consolation of Philosophy is beautifully written—Boethius even intersperses songs into the dialogue—and I happen to agree with the general thesis of the work, so naturally it appeals to me. I especially like, however, that, once again, it is not a theological apologetic. Boethius just assumes God exists and is good. He gives a few reasons for that belief in passing, but they aren’t the focus of the work. They are data to a different problem.

What I find fascinating is that, to me at least, Boethius ends up with something of the polar opposite of the “problem of evil.” Goodness is the problem that needs an explanation. We look around ourselves and see unimaginable injustice and suffering every day. But we also see and believe and, if we are so blessed, have even experienced something in this life that can only be called “good.” This goodness, so long as we agree with Lady Philosophy, is indifferent to circumstance. The rich, famous, and powerful have no more of it—and perhaps have even less—than the poor, ignominious, and weak. Anywhere and in any circumstances, in good or ill fortune, we can imagine a human being—even Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon, for example—to have access to it. Despite all the atrocities and hardships and toil of this life, goodness abides, and in that goodness we find the only thing worth the name “happiness” and, if we agree with Boethius, “God.”

Goodness is everywhere, untouched by evil, all the more victorious over it the stronger evil seems, all the brighter the darker evil becomes. If we want to wax philosophically, we might modify (for the better, in my opinion) Anselm of Canterbury’s ontological argument. In it he argued that existence is better than non-existence, therefore God, being the best imaginable thing, must exist. I find this question begging and thus unsatisfying. But if, like Boethius, we already presume the existence of the good, we need only ask, “What makes more sense: that the good is living and active or inert and passive?” Which of these two options deserves the name “good”?

I think, perhaps, Boethius touches on a much graver and more common dilemma. People may or may not believe in the existence of God, but trying to engage with them on that question often misses a far more important one: the real question all of us face is whether we believe in the good. If there is goodness, then there is meaning and hope and happiness and, indeed, God himself. And if there isn’t, then …

So, perhaps unintentionally, we arrive at theology after all. What are we who have that hope supposed to do? Write a treatise? Argue about it? No, rather “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Lord have mercy that I might carry that flame of goodness with me wherever I go.

Go and Tell

I’m going to break from my typical formula in this post. It has been three years today since my dad died. The only possession of his I knew he wanted me to have when he died was his many writings — mostly poetry, but also some diaries and other, often unfinished, prose, like what follows after the break below.

My father struggled with mental illness, that imprecise and blanketed term. I suspect much of it was undiagnosed PTSD from a life of trauma, but that doesn’t mean it was all circumstantial, and my father would be the first to insist that none of it did away with his own free will and responsibility. Nevertheless, nightmares plagued his sleep and regrets haunted his days. I know of only one thing in his life that ever cut through all of that and brought him any peace: Jesus Christ.

The following prose, lightly edited by me, seems to have been the start of a paraphrase or elaboration on the Gospel according to St. Mark 5:1-20. Or perhaps he thought this was enough as it is. I’m not sure. For those unfamiliar with the story, it will follow my dad’s words after another break, and then I’ll reflect in my own way….

The Demoniac


By James Pahman


The demoniac stood rigidly erect against the stone cell wall, his ankles bleeding where the fetters abraded against his skin and bone, tearing the flesh and slightly paring the bone. His arms lifted above his head held taut by two metal chains which were wrapped around his chest and […] winding around his arms and wrists, nailed into the grey wall by spiked metal clamps. Lesions prickled his senses and scars marked his body. In his eyes were the flashes of fire and passionate violence, they curled and rolled as he hung his burning head toward the compulsive churning of his legs; other times they would stare, glassy and unaffected by the raging mocking clamor of the crowds as the soldiers dragged him across the rocks and dust of the Gerasene desert bound by chains and pulled by horses.

His mind boiled and echoed the taunts and derisions he heard constantly slashing in acute agonizing voices which screamed in fiendish shrills with wicked velocity, tearing the images of his thoughts like thin paper and flashing the illusions of killers and murderous beasts haunting all his awareness and plaguing his mind with ruthless death. The demons played their harsh dissonance within the confines of his brain, battering his nervous system with the intentions of relentless warfare, choking his heart with the distortions and destructions of the horrid, blotching and arraying his vision with a miasma of foul ugliness and disgust.

Tearing the chains and crushing the fetters, he ran in an impetuous fever to the tombs; the desert caves of bones. And there he raved and shrieked in his exposed nakedness, attacking all those who came near. Throughout the rocky mountains’ lofts he would wander crying out bitterness and cutting himself with the sharp stones. He epitomized and was plagued with sin and torturous lusts, from within the black depths of his soul to the ostentatious scars and bleeding ruin of his miserable body.

Who can describe the weighty loneliness of his barren entity, whose heart was parched by the blazing coals of hatred and malevolence? Possessed by demons and abandoned by men of mercy, for he could not be restrained or tamed. He would lay enveloped by the cold, hard walls of caves, the places where the dead were left to rot and decay within their separate cells. Did a song ever leave his lips? Had he comrades to share his humanity?

Would a woman ever comply to be his helpmeet? Did he laugh from happiness and content? And was his strength employed for the vigorous productive work that a man is satisfied with? Or did he ever create an expression of the reflected image in beauty and delight? None of these at all, for we hear the echoed screams of a ravaged spirit tearing into the dark blanket of the night, out of a cave where hollowness is joined with a man, possessed by demons, fuming in the pit of his soul.


It was a cool, calm summer morning. The sun lavished its golden light across the Galilean sea. The surface of the waters sparkled like jewels. Occasionally pelicans would hover above slicing into the sea for a mouthful of fish. Fishermen had a propitious livelihood because of the waters, abundantly inhabited by fish. Early at dawn they would row their small boats out to the larger vessel and initiate their work for the day.

The demoniac stared out towards the sea and heard the gentle splashing of oars cutting the clear waters. He squinted his eyes and lifted his hand to block the brightness of the sun. There at the shore he saw the men jumping out of the boats and pulling them to the edge of the sea. And he saw a man of strong stature lift out of the boat. It was then that he was impelled by vicious roaring from the demons to go to this man and spread his violence before him. And so he ran with great impetus and speed, incited to conquer the stranger on the seashore.

So as not to leave readers unfamiliar with this story’s inspiration in suspense, here is St. Mark 5:1-20:

Then they came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gadarenes. And when He had come out of the boat, immediately there met Him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit, who had his dwelling among the tombs; and no one could bind him, not even with chains, because he had often been bound with shackles and chains. And the chains had been pulled apart by him, and the shackles broken in pieces; neither could anyone tame him. And always, night and day, he was in the mountains and in the tombs, crying out and cutting himself with stones.

When he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and worshiped Him. And he cried out with a loud voice and said, “What have I to do with You, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I implore You by God that You do not torment me.”

For He said to him, “Come out of the man, unclean spirit!” Then He asked him, “What is your name?”

And he answered, saying, “My name is Legion; for we are many.” Also he begged Him earnestly that He would not send them out of the country.

Now a large herd of swine was feeding there near the mountains. So all the demons begged Him, saying, “Send us to the swine, that we may enter them.” And at once Jesus gave them permission. Then the unclean spirits went out and entered the swine (there were about two thousand); and the herd ran violently down the steep place into the sea, and drowned in the sea.

So those who fed the swine fled, and they told it in the city and in the country. And they went out to see what it was that had happened. Then they came to Jesus, and saw the one who had been demon-possessed and had the legion, sitting and clothed and in his right mind. And they were afraid. And those who saw it told them how it happened to him who had been demon-possessed, and about the swine. Then they began to plead with Him to depart from their region.

And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon-possessed begged Him that he might be with Him. However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, “Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.” And he departed and began to proclaim in Decapolis all that Jesus had done for him; and all marveled.

The ancient world spiritualized illness, but our tendency today is to secularize it. While I think our era’s error avoids some serious harms — the scientific method has born good fruit — there are times when our imagined superiority blinds us to anything that doesn’t easily fit into our modern worldviews.

I always feel for our priests the Sunday each year they must read and preach on this story. Our estrangement from ancient worldviews means that talking about something like demon possession will leave one’s hearers wondering whether one has oneself gone mad. When we find it impossible to understand another person’s worldview, we render empathy impossible as well.

For whatever reason, my father found empathy easy in this case. Or, at least, reading his reflection helps me empathize with the demoniac in the story. In our era, mental disturbance is illness, and as illness is unwelcome, especially chronic and untreatable illnesses, we resort to stigmatizing the mentally ill. They remind us too vividly that there remain many deep and serious things about this life for which we have no good explanation, not to mention solution. For their part, the mentally ill sometimes aren’t the most easily approachable people. Not everyone possesses the gift of connecting and caring for the outcast.

But Jesus did, as one should expect of the Son of God. Indeed, before God and apart from him, we all drift about under the sway of violent passions, self-delusion perhaps the most prevalant of all. We should — yes, like my dad did — see ourselves in this story. Indeed, reading it today, I noticed something truly remarkable:

All throughout the Gospel, but especially in St. Mark’s account, Jesus tells people that he heals or helps to keep it a secret. They say, “Thank you!” And he says, “Don’t mention it,” except he really means it. In fact, he usually strictly warns them, “Don’t tell anyone.” “Don’t tell,” he says to the blind man whose eyes he opened. “Don’t tell,” he says to the deaf mute whose hearing and speech he restored. “Don’t tell,” he says to the leper whose sore-ridden and infested skin he cleanses. Immediately following this story, Jesus raises a little girl from the dead, and what does he say to her family? “Don’t tell.” But to one man, this man, the man society had abandoned to the torment of his irrationality, Jesus says, “Go and tell.” What better testament for one’s message than the voice of a man once mute? Yet Jesus doesn’t choose the blind or deaf or mute or diseased to be his witness — he chooses this man, a “madman” — crazy, dangerous, violent, mentally ill, disturbed, tormented.

Of course, the transformation in him must have been remarkable. It terrified the people of the area, who begged Jesus “to depart from their region.” I suppose it also ruined the local swine-herding economy, which either must have been run by Gentiles or non-observant Jews, since pork isn’t kosher. In any case, add that to the reasons this man would seem to be a terrible choice. Who would believe him? How could they get the memory of his madness out of their heads? And who would be paying for the pigs? (Not Jesus, so far as we know.)

Yet Jesus says to him, “Go and tell.” I’ve been asking the wrong questions on purpose to illustrate my point. What we should really be asking is, “Who better?” Who could be more humble than a man full of shame at his own behavior? Who could be more compassionate toward others than one who knows the pain of compassion’s absence? Who better to represent Christ to a world possessed than a man freed by Christ from bondage to the devil?

On this third anniversary of my father’s death, I’m thankful for this seemingly unfinished bit of prose for helping me enter into this strange, ancient story in order to see all the better the beauty of that “stranger on the seashore,” whose peace overpowered the pain and violence of his heart.

May his memory be eternal.

A Bruised Reed

[The abbot] must be aware of his own frailty, and remember that it is forbidden to break the already bruised reed. We do not mean that he should countenance the growth of vice; but that he use discretion and tenderness as he sees it expedient for the different characters of his brothers. He is to endeavour much more to be loved than feared.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 64

There’s a lot that parents could learn from ancient monastics. They commonly called one another “Abba” and “Amma”—father and mother—which was later formalized into Abbot and Abbess, the elders of monastic communities. (In the East, even non-elders are still often referred to as father and mother.)

Of course, there are many important differences between families and monasteries, but the familial language of monastics ought to suggest that the difference is more one of degree. Families may not strictly fast, but generally children must eat their lunch or dinner before they get dessert. Families don’t observe vigils, but little children may wake their parents up at all times of night. And both families and monasteries ought to pray together.

There are real differences of kind, however, that account for some of the differences of degree. Despite strict discipline, monasteries are voluntary communities. People join of their own free will and they can leave in the same way. Similarly, the community can choose whether or not to accept a new member, as well as whether or not one needs to leave. The text above from St. Benedict’s Rule is, in fact, about the election of community elders. Children don’t get to elect their parents. They’re stuck with them until adulthood, at least. The family as an institution is a natural community, created by God himself. Monasteries aspire to be supernatural—a higher calling, a truer family—but they are also in many ways some of the first political communities in the liberal sense we think of them today: voluntary membership, election of leaders, and written or unwritten constitutions to establish order and fairness in the community.

Nevertheless, despite these differences there is still quite a bit for non-monastics to learn from them. St. Benedict speaks of the power of patience and gentleness. Too often, we confuse strength and brute force, whether in parenting or otherwise.

I recently took my oldest son to see a place that perfectly illustrates this. It was shown to me many years ago—sixteen, I think—but I was happy to discover that it is still there. Behind an apartment complex on the side of town I grew up, there is a trail the goes up a hill and into a forest. I think it used to function as a dirt road, and I remember—perhaps incorrectly—a gate at the bottom sixteen years ago, but it was far too overgrown for that. No one would try to drive up there now, and there was no gate.

Wildflowers line the path as it turns left and into a little wood atop the hill. It, too, was quite grown, but there were still paths a person could walk without having to trudge through too many weeds and branches. I knew we were on the right track, but I couldn’t quite remember exactly where it was we were heading. Just inside the wood, at the edge back toward the path that led up the hill, stood an old metal frame. It once had been a swing-set, but all that was left of the swings were the places where the chains would have connected to the frame. We were getting close, but this wasn’t it.

Looking down the hill in the wood, I wondered if the place I was looking for was down there but had become so overgrown as to be completely hidden. Still, I decided to keep going—even if we didn’t find it or it was no longer there, the forest was cool enough. We were having a good time.

We pressed onward following the path through the trees until I saw it, deeper into the wood and farther from the path up the hill: a clearing—not a natural clearing, however. When we got there, it was just how I remembered, except it had deteriorated even more than sixteen years ago. It was a parking lot or foundation of some sort. A building project begun and then abandoned to nature, and nature had taken it. Through cracks in the concrete, now wider than my car, grew bushes and flowers and reeds. Without constant upkeep from humans, our creations, however solid we may imagine them, prove weaker than a blade of grass.

What is stronger than concrete? I’ve seen ancient ruins in Greece and Romania. We think of them as eternal marks of humanity’s achievements, and, sure, they’re great. But the smallest plant, created by God, is greater and stronger. And how much more patient! Concrete must be continually mixed or it will harden fast. But year after year, through the rain and ice and snow, though hardened it cannot withstand the slow, patient, and gentle growth of the natural world. My son Brendan didn’t find the place to be as enchanted and magical as I did, but he liked the journey through the forest to get there, and he patiently listened to my attempt to impart this wisdom to him through my overly-elaborate metaphor.

Speaking of metaphors, St. Benedict did not make up the metaphor of the bruised reed but borrowed it from Scripture. It occurs first in the prophecy of Isaiah, concerning the coming Messiah. St. Matthew picks up on this in his account of the Gospel—to Christians, Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise, hence the title “Christ” (Greek for Messiah). Matthew either paraphrases a bit or the manuscript of Isaiah he used diverged a little from those we more commonly use today, but the illustration is wonderful.

Jesus hears of the Pharisees’ plot against him. And Matthew tells us,

But when Jesus knew it, He withdrew from there. And great multitudes followed Him, and He healed them all. Yet He warned them not to make Him known, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying:

“Behold! My Servant whom I have chosen,

My Beloved in whom My soul is well pleased!

I will put My Spirit upon Him,

And He will declare justice to the Gentiles.

He will not quarrel nor cry out,

Nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets.

A bruised reed He will not break,

And smoking flax He will not quench,

Till He sends forth justice to victory;

And in His name Gentiles will trust.” (Matthew 12:15-21)

Readers unfamiliar with Isaiah might think that this is where the reference stops, but St. Matthew is a better writer than that. In Isaiah, this is what comes next:

Thus says God the Lord,

Who created the heavens and stretched them out,

Who spread forth the earth and that which comes from it,

Who gives breath to the people on it,

And spirit to those who walk on it:

“I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness,

And will hold Your hand;

I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people,

As a light to the Gentiles,

To open blind eyes,

To bring out prisoners from the prison,

Those who sit in darkness from the prison house. (Isaiah 42:5-7)

If we return to Matthew, we see that the very next story is meant to illustrate this point:

Then one was brought to Him who was demon-possessed, blind and mute; and He healed him, so that the blind and mute man both spoke and saw. And all the multitudes were amazed and said, “Could this be the Son of David?” (Matthew 12:22-23)

Here we see Jesus, God Incarnate, freeing a man not from a concrete prison, but from one much worse: psychological torment. Jesus opens his blind eyes, but even more so he brings him out of the darkness of mental disturbance. He sees someone that others believed unredeemable, beyond all help, as a bruised reed that ought not to be broken. With gentleness, he shows his power, and while the religious leaders of his day feared him as a threat to their authority, the crowds flocked to him in the hope that they, too, might feel the warmth of his love.

Patience is hard for parents. I have four children now! Each one is a blessing, but every day I struggle to get to bedtime without all my patience running out. I can’t imagine being a priest or an abbot. Having enough patience for whole communities is not something I can even think about when I so often come short in my own home.

But each day is a new beginning. I like St. Benedict’s words, because he refers not only to how the abbot ought to view the brothers at the monastery, but what sort of man the abbot ought to be as well. “He must be aware of his own frailty” in order to see the frailty of others.

Breaking a bruised reed might seem like strength in the moment, but it is far more powerful to nurture it back to health. So perhaps if I and other parents are also “aware of [our] own frailty,” we can turn that awareness outward toward our children and find the strength of gentle and patient care for them.

“… I partook of the holy and life-giving Mysteries in the Church of the Forerunner and ate half of one of my loaves. Then, after drinking some water from Jordan, I lay down and passed the night on the ground. In the morning I found a small boat and crossed to the opposite bank. I again prayed to Our Lady to lead me whither she wished. Then I found myself in this desert and since then up to this very day I am estranged from all, keeping away from people and running away from everyone. And I live here clinging to my God Who saves all who turn to Him from faintheartedness and storms.”

Zosima asked her: “How many years have gone by since you began to live in this desert?” She replied: “Forty-seven years have already gone by, I think, since I left the holy city.”

~ The Life of St. Mary of Egypt

This Sunday was the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt, and in this time of isolation due to the current pandemic, her life takes on new meaning.

Pia Sophia Chaudhari wrote a wonderful reflection, published last week, encouraging people to consider the trauma that likely led to Mary’s well-known prodigality in her youth.

In this post, I want look instead at her isolation.

Mary tells Fr. Zosima that the first seventeen years were a constant fight with temptation. Literarily, this mirrors her own account of living a sinful life for seventeen years in Egypt in her youth. Her seventeen years of sin require seventeen years of repentance.

To Pia’s point, it should be noted that repentance is not traditionally a strictly juridical idea. It would be easy to draw the conclusion that there is a proportion of justice implied in the parallel between Mary’s seventeen years in the world and her first seventeen in the desert. That may very well be the case, but repentance — and sin, for that matter — is much broader. The Greek word means “to change one’s mind.” The Hebrew means “to turn around.” In this latter sense, God is even described as “repenting” from punishments out of his mercy. Because he was merciful, he did not at that time give his people what they deserved as a matter of justice but rather acted according to his grace.

Mary’s whole life in the desert — like all the saints — was a matter of repentance. Let us consider again Pia’s suggestion that behind Mary’s sin was likely trauma. Psychologically, the scars of the past cannot be overcome in an instant. As creatures, change is part of our natures — we are all always “in process.” Like Mary, many have had transformative moments of conversion — my point isn’t to downplay the power of such phenomena. Rather, it is to be mindful of the Lord’s parable of the seed that the sower sowed upon different kinds of soil. The seed that fell among the rocks grew up quickly, but it had no root and withered.

Mary not only had a dramatic conversion in Jerusalem, which she earlier details, but she then, in faith, set out to lay down deep roots. To extend the parable, we may think of those seventeen years as digging up the rocks and clearing the ground so that the seed she received would have room to grow.

I have been thinking about St. Mary of Egypt all through Lent this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early on, many protested that stay at home orders applied to churches, especially Orthodox churches due to our understanding of the vital role of the sacraments, but notice what St. Mary says: She received the sacraments once at the Church of St. John the Forerunner, then set out into the desert … for forty-seven years! According to the story, she only received them one more time, by the hand of Fr. Zosima who returned to her, before her death.

Our current state is not “normal.” We stay inside for our safety and for the vulnerable in our communities. If we must go out, we keep our distance from others — they or we may be asymptomatic carriers — and many have started wearing face masks which even prevent us from smiling at each other.

At home, the single are faced with real isolation. Those with families face other frustrations. Whoever we are, we are facing the temptations — a word, it should be noted, which can also mean “trials” — of all the scars of our pasts. Many of us have found that the fight against them isn’t as easy as we had expected. And in the midst of it all, we are deprived of the grace of the sacraments.

Or are we?

Many saints — St. Maximos the Confessor, for example — say that we receive the fullness of God’s grace at our baptisms, just as the whole tree is contained in the single seed from which it grows. This isn’t to say that we don’t need the Eucharist. I’ll take all the grace I can get! Rather it is to remind us of God’s power. He has not left us without help. For St. Mary, it sustained her for forty-seven years.

We can get through this. Hopefully it won’t take forty-seven years. But however long it takes, let us use the time to clear away the rocks — the temptations — over which we so often stumble.

I am reminded of something Fr. Roman Braga, of blessed memory, once said about his time at the Pitesti prison — a Soviet torture camp — and his time, after the prison was shut down, in solitary confinement. He spent three or four years enduring unspeakable torture meant to brainwash him away from his deepest held beliefs, his faith, his morals. He said that at Pitesti he learned that the devil was real.

After the outside world heard about the prison, the Soviets immediately shut it down — they always wanted to put on a good face for the outside world. So they transferred Fr. Roman to solitary confinement for eleven years. Not quite forty-seven — or even seventeen — but still a very long time. He said that there he discovered that God was truly real. Because when you are alone, you have nowhere to look but inside yourself. And we all are created in the image of God, so what we see, when we are able to truly look there, is God — his imprint upon our hearts.

Fr. Roman was an academic before the Soviets arrested him. But he said that he learned his books had been a sort of prison of their own. By himself, there was nothing to do but face whatever lurked inside and to meet it with prayer. I suspect that experience is quite similar to St. Mary’s. Perhaps it is becoming familiar to some of us.

Even now, I know that I find ways to distract myself. There’s nothing wrong with taking a rest when it is needed, but maybe those innocent things can be a sort of prison for me as well, like Fr. Roman’s books.

We are isolated, worried, stressed out, tempted, confused, frustrated, impatient, and so much more right now. We have good reason to be. But we also have good reason to hope. Every resurrection is preceded by death. There is a real disease that is a threat to life and health. For those we lose, we can take refuge in that hope of the resurrection. There are economic consequences to the measures we’ve taken. For those of us who lost jobs, we can take refuge in that hope. For whole industries and economies that may be disrupted and lost, we can take refuge in that hope. And as long as humanity can remember, our world has been diseased with corruption and sin. And for our own mistaken images of ourselves, our misplaced self-worth, we can take refuge in that hope.

Our value is anchored not in the foaming river of our ever-changing world, but in the immovable grace of God, who raised our Lord from the dead, who raised St. Mary from a life of prodigality, who raises us every day.

Lord, have mercy. We will rise from this, too.

When anyone presents himself to be admitted as a monk, they shall not easily give him entrance; but, as the apostle advises: “Make trial of the spirits, to see if they are of God.” If he is importunate and goes on knocking at the door, for four or five days, and patiently bears insults and rebuffs and still persists, he shall be allowed to enter. He shall stay in the guest-room for a few days. Thence he shall go to the cell where the novices study and eat and sleep.

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 58

There is a saying of Christ that typically is translated, “I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). This translation isn’t wrong, but English is one of the most precise languages, with millions of words and many words and phrases with slight nuance to express similar ideas. Thus, even when a translation is correct, something might get lost in translation.

In this case, I think something did. I recently read a different translation that also translated it correctly, “keep asking … keep seeking … keep knocking….” In English, the difference between the two is great. View full article »

How to Be a Saint (Part 2)

Read Part 1 here. There will be at least one or two more parts.

How to Be a Saint — Part 2

A Didache for Children

Child, all day you should remember the person who teaches you God’s message. You should treat that person like the Lord Jesus himself. Wherever people talk about the Lord, he is there with them! Hang out with holy people every day so that you can enjoy listening to them. Don’t be someone who causes people to leave each other. Be someone who brings people together! Be fair. Always side with the person who is right, even if that person isn’t your favorite. Be consistent and don’t regret doing the right thing. View full article »